The Top Non-Touristy Things to Do in San Francisco

Photo of Judy Cogan
16 July 2021

Seen the Golden Gate Bridge? Been to Alcatraz? Culture Trip delves into the lesser-known side of San Francisco to explore hidden gems in northern California’s energetic metropolis.

There’s more to a vacation than ticking off sights on a well-worn tourist trail. To really get to know a city like San Francisco, you need to think like a local. Spend the morning strolling around a farmers market, belt out some late-night karaoke and eat delicious street food with our guide to the Golden Gate City.

Grab a bite to eat at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

Building, Market
Map View
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market San Francisco
© Nikreates / Alamy Stock Photo
San Francisco hosts dozens of farmers’ markets that support local businesses and organic, sustainable farming. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market has a reputation for the quality and diversity of its farm-fresh products and tasty food. On Saturday mornings, this place is lively with over 100 vendors, guest chefs and farmers popping up to feed and water you with views over The Bay. We recommend lavender shortbread from the Miette Patisserie, followed by coffee from Blue Bottle.

Pedal an e-bike over the Golden Gate Bridge

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Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.
© Andriy Bezuglov / Alamy Stock Photo
Forget taking snaps of this iconic landmark from inside a stuffy tour coach. Make like a local and take an electric bike tour right across the 1.7mi (2.7km) Golden Gate Bridge and bypass SF’s best parks, neighborhoods and Victorian architecture along the way. The tour includes a picnic in Golden Gate National Park with epic panoramic views.

Visit the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

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San Francisco boasts what might just be the finest American museum entirely devoted to Asian art. Housed in a beaux-arts building, the museum features thousands of artifacts from countries as diverse as India and Tibet to Japan and China. Take a peek at the Chinese bronze sculptures, the best collection outside of Asia, as well as the centuries-old Hindu deity statues. Short on time? Join the Great Works tour which runs for 45-minutes and zips through the main highlights. Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month and the gift shop is well worth browsing afterward.

Sing karaoke at Festa in Japantown

Bar, Japanese, American
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This intimate karaoke bar is tucked away in the Kinokuniya Mall in Japantown. There are more than 150,000 songs in multiple languages to choose from at $2 each. For over a decade, this bar has been serving up delicious cocktails (try the Saketini) to oil an authentic Tokyo experience in this welcoming but largely under-the-radar neighborhood. You’re more likely to see a rowdy work night out here than hordes of fellow tourists.

Admire the view from Twin Peaks

Hill Station, Park
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Skyline of San Francisco showing early morning fog over the bay, from the popular viewing point Twin Peaks, California, USA.
© Rohan Van Twest / Alamy Stock Photo
Hiking up Twin Peaks (not to be confused with the David Lynch crime drama) is not only great exercise but a good way to see pre-industrial San Francisco. At 922ft (281m) above sea level, it is one of the largest hills in the city, offering incredible views of the Bay Area. Start the 3km (2mi) circular hike from Clarendon Avenue, just south of Col Valley. It’s quite the leg burner, so make sure you’re wearing comfy shoes and bring a layer in case it’s gusty up top.

Snap photos of the 16th Avenue Tiled Step Project

Architectural Landmark
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The Mosaic Stairs of San Francisco
© Chris LaBasco / Alamy Stock Photo

Located on Moraga Street in Golden Gate Heights, the 16th Avenue Tiled Step Project is a beautiful work of urban art. For two years, from 2003-2005, the steel steps were mosaicked with the pure intention of making them more beautiful; this is certainly the most photogenic staircase you are going to find in the city. Climb the 163 step stairway as it flows through themes, from an oceanic aesthetic to a night sky-inspired design.

Tuck into street food at District Six SF

Food Court, Street Food, $$$
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District Six SF, formerly known as Soma StrEat Food Park, is a lifestyle space with outdoor gyms and a barbershop alongside food trucks and pop-ups serving global cuisine. Highlights include The Steamin Burger, where patties are stuffed with jalapeños and steamed so they are less greasy, as well as Moonraker, a seafood-loving outfit that serves outrageously tasty lobster rolls and coconut shrimp.

Hike to Lands End

Bridge, Natural Feature
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This 4mi (3km) hike is an absolute must whilst visiting San Francisco. It takes you along the craggy coastal path past Sutro Baths – keep your eyes peeled for the Mile Rock Lighthouse out to sea. At Lands End itself, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge and East Bay, all from one incredible vantage point. Hikers, bikers, exercise groups and dog-walkers frequent this path, which begins right off the Great Highway at Point Lobos Avenue.

Explore Alcatraz Island at night, if you dare

Natural Feature
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Inside the Alcatraz Prison at dusk.
© Michael Mouritsen / Alamy Stock Photo
Most tourists flock to Alcatraz Island during daylight hours for good reason. Operating as a high-security federal prison between 1934 and 1963, it housed some of America’s most notorious criminals including Al Capone. Go at night, you say? Well, if you’re brave enough, you will get special treatment with tours and activities not offered during the day, plus the atmospheric impact of the dark night sky and moonlit cells.

Watch the San Francisco Giants play at Oracle Park

Park, Stadium, Historical Landmark
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AT&T Ballpark, San Francisco.
© Dave Newman / Alamy Stock Photo

Watching the Giants play at Oracle Park in South Beach, one of the most picturesque baseball parks in the country, offers sumptuous views over the Bay. Grab a famous crab sandwich, probably the best snack in baseball, before sinking into the carnival-like ambiance of the game. Tickets aren’t overly expensive if you’re not too picky about your seats, whilst the park itself is accessible by public transport.

Danielle Hallock contributed additional reporting to this article.

These recommendations were updated on July 16, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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